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Review of "Handbook of Self and Identity"

By Mark R. Leary and June Price Tangney
Guilford Press, 2002
Review by William A. Buchanan, Ph.D. on Mar 21st 2003
Handbook of Self and Identity

From the editors' preface:  "One of the most notable things about human beings that distinguishes them from all other animals is their ability to self-reflect, to form images and ideas of what they are like, to ponder important questions about themselves, to seek outcomes that are congenial to their sense of self, to exert deliberate control over themselves, and to engage on other acts of selfhood.  Although our understanding of these processes will undoubtedly advance in the coming years, researchers and theorists have made enormous strides in illuminating these quintessential human processes related to the self.  This volume represents an attempt to integrate and summarize state-of-the-art knowledge about self and identity in a simple, comprehensive volume."

The book is no lightweight -- 703 pages, 32 chapters covering seven parts, with 5 overlapping domains/sections, and includes author and subject indexes.  Fifty-four authors were invited to provide the content.  The editors sought to capture the full flavor and excitement about 'self research and theory' that has emerged over the last 30 years, but more than a century since William James' classic 1890 text, Principles of Psychology, and his chapter therein -- the 'consciousness of self.'  They point out that there now exists a thriving international, interdisciplinary society for scholars who study the self and identity as well as a new journal called Self and Identity that started publication in 2002.

Part I.  (2 introductory chapters)

1)                  The Self as an Organizing Construct in the Behavioral and Social Sciences.

2)                  The Self as a Psychosocial Dynamic Processing System:  a meta-perspective on a century of the self in psychology.

Part II.  (6 chapters)  Content, Structure, and Organization of the Self

Examines the content, structure and organization of the self.  "A great deal of theory and research has been devoted to cognitive aspects of the self -- not only the content of people's thoughts about themselves but how the self-relevant information is organized, stored, and retrieved.  The six chapters herein cover topics such as identity, self-concept, self-memory, self-organization, the implicit self, and the stability of self-thought."

Part III.  (5 chapters)  Agency, Regulation, & Control

These five chapters focus on the processes by which people regulate themselves -- processes involving self-awareness, self-control, the use of self-standards, and self-efficacy.  "Although researchers still do not understand precisely how people turn self-generated intentions into deliberate self-directed behavior, the chapters in this section show how far our understanding has progressed in the past 20 years.

Part IV.  (7 chapters)  Evaluation, Motivation, & Emotion

"The topics covered in Parts II and III involve largely "cold" self processes, focusing on how people develop, process, store, and use information about themselves.  The chapters in Part IV, in contrast, deal with "hot" processes that involve motivation and emotion.  A great deal of research has studied self-motives such as self-enhancement and self-verification, as well as how self-thought and self-evaluation are related to emotions such as pride, shame, and guilt.  The chapters in Part III share a common focus on self-processes involving evaluation, motivation, and emotion."

Part V.  (7 chapters)  Interpersonal Aspects of the Self

"One criticism that has been leveled at some research on self and identity is that it has treated the self in a disembodied, decontextualized manner, thereby losing much of its inherently interpersonal nature.  The seven chapters in Part V redress this complaint as they focus on interpersonal aspects of the self.  Clearly much of what happens when people interact -- in relationships, groups, or casual interactions -- is influenced by how the individuals construe themselves.  In turn, these self-construals are greatly affected by interpersonal and cultural factors."

Part VI.  (4 chapters)  Phylogenetic and Ontological Development.

This section deals with the 'development of the self', among non-human animals, over evolutionary time, and during childhood and adolescence.  The editors comment that "Most psychologists would agree that newborn babies, like most non-human animals, have at most a rudimentary bodily or ecological self but no capacity for true self-awareness or self-relevant thought."  This section addresses many interesting questions about the selves of other animals, how the human self evolved from presumably self-less hominids, ways in which self-thoughts and self-evaluations change with age, and why the development of the self sometimes goes awry, resulting in emotional and behavioral problems.

Part VII.  Epilogue

The last section provides a single chapter where the editors reflect on common themes that have emerged across the five areas of self-functioning (Parts II-VI above) and speculate on what the future holds for the next generation of research on the self.  They point out that the "first generation" of empirical research on the self emerged in the middle of the 20th century and focused primarily on self-esteem, which was conceptualized as a fairly stable attribute and was seen largely in the province of personality psychology.  The "second generation" of self research, in turn, is seen as starting in the 1980's, where researchers conceptualizations of the self became markedly more rich and differentiated, as a range of subdisciplines began to investigate properties and mechanisms of the self.  Examples given are social psychology, developmental psychology, and sociology.

Four continuing themes of this volume are seen by the editors to still dominate most of the ongoing research, and hence future of self research. These are--evolutionary processes, self esteem, development of self, and culture-self relationships.  The editors provide a fairly rich discussion as to what questions researchers will ask in each of these areas.  They conclude this section, and the book, with the expectation that rapid growth and progress in the self-research and theory field will occur as integration of current 'midlevel theories', presented in this volume, gets raised to the next theoretical level.  As this occurs, they feel this marks the third generation of research on the self.

Reviewer's Comments:  I recommend this very fine volume to anyone needing core reference material on the latest research and theory on self and identity.  It will surely remain as the technical standard in the field probably for the next five years.  Three areas I would have liked to have seen more of are work/occupational aspects of self, the role of religious belief in identity, and the cognitive neuroscience of self.  But all of these do have their individual research sources for consideration.  The Annual Review of Psychology for 2003 has a fine chapter on the religion-self issue, and the Annual Review of Neuroscience probably considers self factors, as well.  I confess that despite my own research on self and work, I cannot readily point to a reference work in that area.


© 2003 William A. Buchanan


William A. Buchanan, PhD, is an experimental psychologist practicing in Palo Alto, California. He is the founder and president of WABA, Inc., an industrial-organizational consulting firm established in 1980.  See his work on the web at home.earthlink.net/~waba.